It's like the song says: You always hurt the ones you love.
That certainly turned out to be the case this week, when the driver most impacted by the scandal gripping Michael Waltrip Racing turned out to be the one who had the least to do with it. Martin Truex Jr. is out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, thanks to what NASCAR deemed a manipulation of Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway by MWR that led to penalties for all three teams affiliated with the organization.
And yet it's Truex, intended to be the beneficiary here, who ends up paying the highest price. NASCAR's sanctions in this case were applied to the standings from before the playoff field was reseeded, with all three MWR drivers being docked 50 points -- not insignificant under a system where one point equals one position on the race track. But Brian Vickers, part-time in the premier series this season, didn't qualify for the Chase. Clint Bowyer was safely in by a wide margin. So it ends up being Truex, driving for the only MWR program not implicated in all this, who is bumped out in favor of Ryan Newman.
It's a cruel turn of events for a driver who overcame a broken wrist and a fired over-the-wall crewman to initially make the Chase field, and late Saturday night was handed a magnum of champagne and had his photo taken on a stage with the other 11 playoff participants. When Truex emerged from the car at Richmond, he was speechless. It had been such a tense night, he had no idea where he stood in relation to the other Chase hopefuls. When he found out he was in, he was shocked. And less than 48 hours later, he was out again.
"Feel bad for Truex," were the first words on the issue posted to Twitter by Jeff Gordon, another driver directly affected by this situation, and it's impossible to disagree. It was Vickers who was instructed over the radio to pit unexpectedly in the waning laps, in the closest thing NASCAR officials found to a smoking gun. It was Bowyer whose suspicious spin with seven laps remaining brought out the caution that changed everything, even if NASCAR couldn't confirm that he did it on purpose. And in a particularly painful twist of the law of unintended consequences, it's Truex who suffers most of all.
Waltrip claims there was no conspiracy plan afoot, and that everything unfolded due to circumstances. It may have, but the end result is still the same -- a wide-ranging penalty that affects the MWR organization as a whole, and unfortunately sweeps Truex up in the dragnet. It's harsh, no doubt about it. Still, you spare Truex, and there's no clear way of delivering justice for Newman, who is the most aggrieved party in all this, and as a result of the point deduction becomes the second Wild Card to the Chase.
Nothing about this is easy. Even now, in the wake of perhaps the most severe penalty in modern NASCAR history -- which also included a record $300,000 fine to MWR, probation to all three crew chiefs, and the indefinite suspension of Norris -- some clamor that NASCAR should have done more. But there's no way to make this situation perfect. No question Gordon has a gripe here, given the final caution and restart provided Joey Logano with the opportunity to overtake him for the 10th and final Chase spot determined on points. But to get Gordon in using the same mechanism that swapped Truex for Newman, NASCAR would have had to saddle Bowyer alone with an 80-point deduction that translates to roughly 333 under the previous system, and would stand as a historic penalty in and of itself.
Clearly, that would be a little harsh. Regardless of what role he may have played in Saturday night's shenanigans, Bowyer has been among the most consistent drivers this season, clinching his Chase berth three weeks ago. This is a guy who would have been the Sprint Cup points leader coming to Richmond had his engine not blown a week earlier at Atlanta, and some people want him out of the playoff altogether? That's about as unrealistic as NASCAR resolving this quandary by magically awarding extra Chase berths to everyone affected, a solution as viable as adding a 37th points race on the moon.
It's a sticky one, all right. Perhaps MWR saw all this as the natural extension of usual teammate cooperation, like drafting, or giving one another a lap back, or allowing each other to lead to pick up a bonus point. Perhaps all this really was the result of a few decisions made independently by a few people, with ramifications that appear conspiratorial when viewed in full. Perhaps if Newman's pit crew had been a fraction of a second quicker on that final pit stop, or if Gordon hadn't gotten bogged down on that last restart, we wouldn't even be here at all.
But we are, and it's an ugly place to be. Already you have people hammering on Logano, saying he doesn't deserve his position in the Chase, when he had nothing to do with this and simply took advantage of the circumstances placed in front of him. You have people pitting Logano against Gordon in some twisted zero-sum game, saying one should be in at the expense of the other, when both of them were just bystanders. You have Vickers, whose unexpected move to pit in the final laps proved the most damning piece of evidence in NASCAR's eyes, playing a pivotal role in this drama when he seemed as confused over what was unfolding as almost everyone else.
And you have Truex. Poor Truex, who we last saw at Richmond smiling and embracing members of his No. 56 team and spraying champagne along with the rest of the Chase class of 2013. He was handed his new Chase cap, posed for photos with the other Chase participants, was booked for his part in Wednesday's pre-Chase publicity tour. It was real. It was there. He felt the joy and the relief and the excitement and the anticipation. He was in.
Who could have known it was all a mirage, a scene that's since faded away completely, as if it was never there to begin with. All of it thanks to people who believed they were helping him, and instead forced him to pay a higher price than anyone else.
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